Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Tim, modified 9 Months ago.

Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 2 Join Date: 10/12/20 Recent Posts
Hi Everyone, 

Since this is my first post on this forum, I should perhaps begin with a short introduction. My name is Tim, I'm 31 years old, and I am from the Netherlands. I have always been deeply interested in meditation (or rather the kind of things to which it could lead), have practiced it more or less dilligently every now and then, but have never managed to sustain a serious practice for more than a couple of months. However, I have resolved to change that. For about three weeks now I am back at meditating seriously on a twice-a-daily basis and I intend to continue to do so for the foreseeable time ahead. 

Anyway, I am currently mostly trying to improve my ability to concentrate so as to reach what is sometimes referred to as "access concencentration".  Many instructions will tell you that it will be helpful, especially in the beginning, to count your breaths, instead of just attending to it simplicer. However, I have been wondering if the very act of trying to count is not actually counterproductive. It seems to me that counting the breath while attending to it actually results in some form of divided attention. As far as I can tell from my own experience, you cannot literally count the breath and be fully attentive to it at the same time. When you are trying to do that, you're just alternating very rapidly between the two (at least if you are succesful).

But does that not ultimately defeat the purpose of the practice itself?  I can imagine that trying to do just two things (counting and attending) for a set period of time can already be seen as quite a challenge if your mind has a tendency to do a dozen. However, isn't the counting itself not ultimately a hindrance, something to be discarded as soon as possible?

Another way to bring this point out is as follows. Suppose you are counting "1" after the first exhale. What you have to do now -- again, as far as my own experience is concerned -- is actively retain a concious memory of the first count ('1'), and  for the duration of the whole second in and out breath. In other words, while you are supposed to be attending to the sensations of the second breath, you are distracted trying to remember or hold in your mind the number you counted during the previous breath. In that sense your mind is already somewhere else. 

In fact, it seems to me that as far as I attend to the second breath it is actually impossible to actively retain the memory of the previous count at the same time. In other words, when I have counted '1' on the first outhale, fully attend to the sensations of the second breath and, after I finish the second outhale, count '2', it appears that I can only do so on the basis of a kind of memory that I myself at any rate have not been consciously retaining. If I correclty remember my last count, it is due, not to my full attention to it, but due to some automatic memory process that goes on behind the stage.

I guess what I am trying to say is that simultaneously consciously counting the breath and attending to the sensations of the breath is actually not possible. And thinking that it is can actually lead to unnecessary frustration. At least it did so in my own case. What I often experienced, I think, is that I would loose count precisely because I had been attending so fully to the breath. From this I may have wrongfully concluded that I lacked sufficient concentration, whereas concentration might actually have been the reason for my forgetting! This may have led to unnecessary self-doubt. 

I am curious if anyone is willing to share their thoughts about this. Am I self-serving myself here or is there something true to the phenomenological analysis I have been sketching ? 

All the very best,


Tim 



 
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Jarrett, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 54 Join Date: 6/29/20 Recent Posts
Hey Tim,

My advice, and the advice I've received from teachers, is to count the breath to stabilize your attention. Then you can drop the count and shift to noticing the breath and the body breathing. 

That being said, I have entered jhana by counting my breath. And I don't think it actually matters if you are 100% focused on the breath or the number. Just some anchor to stabilize concentration. 

The Yogacarabhumi-sastra gives very precise details and instructions for counting your breath as well as other techniques. I recommend checking it out.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yogacarabhumi-sastra

Hope this is helpful.

Jarrett

edit: "And I don't think it actually matters if you are 100% focused on the breath or the number" -- in order to get access concentration
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Jim Smith, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 983 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
Tim:
Hi Everyone, 
...

I am curious if anyone is willing to share their thoughts about this. Am I self-serving myself here or is there something true to the phenomenological analysis I have been sketching ? 

All the very best,


Tim 

 


Concentration arises naturally when the mind is calm.

Stress interferes with concentration because part of the stress reaction is to become fixated on the source of the stress. This fixation is helpful if a lion is stalking us, but it is not helpful if we want to meditate when we come home from work and can't stop thinking about the fight we had with our boss.

So I don't see meditation helping develop concentration entirely like the way lifting weights builds muscles. Meditation helps develop concentration in part by cultivating equanimity and relaxation so we don't get stressed as much as we used to.

Personally, I meditate for tranquility and insight.
I practice insight when my mind is calm.
I count to help keep the verbal mind from distracting me as I focus on the breath and relaxing while I cultivate tranquility.
When my mind is calm I stop counting.

I count to ten when my mind is turublent.

As my mind quiets down I might reduce the count to four, and later just say "in" and "out" as I breathe, and later stop saying anything and just notice my breath.


Also, I don't concentrate intenseily when I meditate. It makes me numb and irritable. I think that's because it suppresses thoughts and emotions. I find the numbness interferes with bliss and states even nicer than bliss. I prefer to observe thoughts and emotions, I think that leads to letting go rather than suppression which keeps them in. I see awakening as the process of letting go of attachments to self, so I don't think intense concentration will produce the effects I want. I think there are some people who are actually repressed and awakened. I don't want that kind of awakening.
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Jim Smith, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 983 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
Jim Smith:

Also, I don't concentrate intensely when I meditate. It makes me numb and irritable. I think that's because it suppresses thoughts and emotions. I find the numbness interferes with bliss and states even nicer than bliss. I prefer to observe thoughts and emotions, I think that leads to letting go rather than suppression which keeps them in. I see awakening as the process of letting go of attachments to self, so I don't think intense concentration will produce the effects I want. I think there are some people who are actually repressed and awakened. I don't want that kind of awakening.

I think the idea that concentrating hard in meditation gives you better concentration in daily life is kind of a misunderstanding.

When I concentrate intensely in meditation it makes my mind "numb" I become forgetful, it is the opposite of "improved concentration" It is more like "distracted". My mind becomes "single pointed" stuck on the object of meditation. I once called the zen temple to order a cushion or something and the person who answered my call was obviously on retreat and was tripping out on meditation. Usually when you call to order something they ask you what you want, what is your address, what is your credit card number. This person just answered the phone, and said "hello" and was silent. I had to say why I called, what I wanted, what my address was, what my credit card number was, without being prompted. Meditation turned this guy into a zombie, it might have given him better concentration but not in the way I think you mean.

I think there could be some improvement in general ability to stay focused produced by meditation but you have to wait for the anesthetic effect meditation to wear off before you experience it. And you can get it from less intense forms of meditation that don't have the same numbing effect like observing the mind rather than focusing/stopping the mind, or observing sensory input rather than becoming so focused you become impervious to sensory input. 

When I write "I meditate on the breath" I mean I observe my breath as a background upon which to notice mental activity that arises to interrupt my concentration. And I use the breath as a means to help with relaxation to prepare the mind for vipassana not as a focus to stop the mind or drive out all awareness of sensory input.
Edward Prunesquallor, modified 9 Months ago.

RE: Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 49 Join Date: 10/11/14 Recent Posts
I kind of adapt Ajahn Tong's method of 'speaking' the noting mantra right where the sensation occurs, and use syllables of a Hindu mantra to note exhalations only. 

https://www.sirimangalo.org/text/how-to-meditate/
Tim, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 2 Join Date: 10/12/20 Recent Posts
Hello Everyone, 

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. It is helpful. 

I have to say that some of the comments here, as well as some of my own recent experiences, have dimished somewhat my own intial enthousiasm about the practice of training your mind to concentrate. I can very much emphasize with the things you are saying, Jim. During the last decade I have been meditating on and of and I often found trying to keep your attention single-mindedly on the breath quite a torturous experience. So instead of trying to "fix" my mind, I have often preffered simply to sit and "let-everything-happen-as-it-happens-and-observe-what-happens", which seems rather like the kind of thing that your are describing. 

However, from what I read (work by Culadasa, Leigh Brasington, Ingram) trying to fix your mind on a single object -- which surely seems very different from simply passively observing whatever happens happen -- does appear to be a genuine and valuable objective in its own right. The impression I get is that there ought to be some way of going at it that is not torturous and mind-numbening. It seems to me that the trick is in trying to focus while at the same time completely accepting the fact that you are going to fail because, in some sense, you simply don't have any control over all the many distractions that are going to lure you in. I guess the point I am trying to make is that there are different ways to think about what "developing concentration" might mean. Perhaps it does not have to be the kind of mind-numbening thing that it seems?


@Jarett and Edward: Thanks for your reading suggestions. I will take a look at those. 


Best, 


Tim 
Martin, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Some reflections on the use(lesness) of Counting your Breaths

Posts: 294 Join Date: 4/25/20 Recent Posts
Tim, I would say that you are noticing the right things and asking the right questions. What is it like to notice something? What is it like to have a piece of information held in the mind? How can that be done? What are the implications of doing it and of not doing it? How does impact other things in the mind and in the body? These are things worth exploring. I think it's worth practicing despite, or perhaps because of, the tension involved in trying to do two things. As others have said, you may choose to drop the counting at some point, but when you do, look at how it is different to count and not to count. 

You may also want to play around with different ways of counting. When I am counting the breath on the upper lip, I count one in-breath and one out-breath together as one breath, go up to five and repeat. But when I am counting breath throughout the whole body, I count each half of the breath as one, so one in-breath and one out-breath gets me to "two," and I keep going to 50 or 100. Sometimes, my language center shuts down before the count is over and my mind does not have the capacity to produce words (numbers). That's interesting too. 

When considering whether counting is interfering in complete awareness of the breath and whether it might better not to count because of this potential interference, it is worth considering that some people would describe the meditative goal, when trying to reach access concentration, not as the actual act of following the breath, but the suppression of the things that get in the way of access concentration (the five hindrances). If you can get rid of those, it might not be important what other things your mind is or is not doing. You could, in theory, count your breath, and also tap your foot and bounce a ball, so long as those things kept your mind in a state where wanting, irritation, drowsiness, worry, and second-guessing do not come up. 

Whichever approach you take, persistent practice tends to bear fruit regardless of the thoughts about the practice that come up along the way, so not arriving at any answers is fine too. 

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